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THE PLACE OF A VANISHED CITY
ABOUT 1823, in western New York, a farm lad, Joseph Smith by name, began to see visions. He was seventeen years old. For a long time he had been reflecting on religion, and he was in the habit of withdrawing to secret places and spending hours in prayer and meditation. The region was new and still half wild; the facilities for travel and education were few, and the boy knew practically nothing of the world, and had received little or no schooling. In the visions that came to him in his sleep he saw an angel “with a countenance like lightning,” and the house was filled with “consuming fire.” The angel told the lad that his prayers were heard and his sins forgiven, and declared that the preparatory work for the second coming of the Messiah was speedily to commence, for which work the boy had been chosen by God to be an instrument in spreading the gospel in its power and fulness to all nations.
This angel visited the farm boy many times, and among other things told him much about the aboriginal inhabitants of America, of how they sank from civilization to savagery, of their wars and religion and prophets. The last of the prophets was one named Mormon, who at God’s command wrote on thin plates of gold what was designed to be a supplement to the Hebrew Scriptures. After these revelations were duly inscribed, the golden plates were hidden by the prophet on the side of a hill near what is now Palmyra, New York.
Directed by the angel, Joseph Smith, the farm lad, whose home was in the vicinity of this hill, found the plates, and with them a curious instrument which he called “urim and thummim,” consisting of two transparent stones set in rims and having some resemblance to spectacles. The characters on the golden plates were in an unknown language; but by looking through urim and thummim, Smith was enabled to understand and translate the ancient records into English.
In 1830 this translation was printed as “The Book of Mormon,” and that same year the “Church of Latter Day Saints” was organized and began to grow. From a membership of six it increased in a twelvemonth to over one thousand, and during the next three years the young prophet ordained hundreds of ministers and sent them out in all directions through the country.
Troublous times followed, and the new sect was ridiculed and persecuted, and the believers migrated in search of peace from one place to another. At length, in 1838, the Mormon saints to the number of fifteen thousand took refuge in Illinois, where they obtained a grant of land on the banks of the Mississippi. At the spot chosen was a little village named Commerce; but Smith, in obedience to one of the revelations he was continually receiving, changed the name to Nauvoo, which means “The City of Beauty.”
Nauvoo was not long in becoming the largest and most promising place in the state; and yet less than a decade passed before it was well-nigh deserted and much of the Mormon property had been confiscated and the prophet had been slain. The place has stagnated ever since. In the height of its prosperity and power it had nearly thirty thousand inhabitants. Now there are twelve hundred. The situation is very attractive, with the river making a long sweep around a peninsula two miles broad. The land is all high enough to be beyond the reach of the floods, and recedes from the stream in a smooth stretch of meadows and fields to where, at the neck of the peninsula, there is a sudden rise to a commanding plateau. At the crest of the rise stood the great Mormon temple; but the business centre was down below on a broad street running across the peninsula and ending with the river both north and south. This wide avenue is still as it was, and so are many of the parallel streets and crossways. You can easily trace the orderly plan of the city — the skeleton of the vanished metropolis — though the old thoroughfares are nearly all grass-grown, and not infrequently there is scarcely a sign of travel on them.
Some of the Mormon dwellings were of brick, some were frame structures, and many were of logs or of wattle daubed with clay. A considerable number of the brick and frame buildings have survived and are scattered about the old city centre and far back into the country. On the high river bank at the south end of Main Street is the home of the prophet Joseph Smith — a clapboarded, unpainted farmhouse of moderate size. It never was very substantial, and though it is still occupied, the passing years have left it badly dilapidated. One of the chambers was pointed out to me with the information that the prophet used to get his revelations from God “in that there room.”
In the yard on the slope that fronts the river lay buried the prophet’s wife Emma, and roundabout were several other graves, some marked by headstones, but more with only a few rocks piled up on them, or roughly outlined with a row of bricks. The ground was rather dishevelled; for the spot had served some previous inmates of the house as a rooting-place for their hogs. Now it was overgrown with weeds and straggling thickets of gooseberry and lilac bushes.
Across the way from the prophet’s house is a large two-story building which he ran as a hotel. In one of the upper rooms is a secret closet. It is a closet within a closet, and very well concealed. A townsman in speaking to me of it said: “No genuine prophet of God would have had such a closet. It shows he had a guilty conscience.”
An Old Mormon Doorway
Another person told me that Brigham Young was killed in the secret closet, and added, “They say spatters of his blood are to be seen on the wall yet, and some people who go in there imagine they see his ghost.”
Every dweller in Nauvoo had something to tell about the Mormons — opinions, facts, legends, hearsay. Their occupancy of the place and the tragic events connected with their leaving overshadow all other happenings before or since, and the interest is always kept fresh by the questionings of chance sojourners, and by the many Mormon pilgrims who come from Utah to visit this ancient stronghold of their faith. The old hotel is now the abode of a washerwoman, and I found her much concerned over some Mormon missionaries who had recently preached in the town. “They were full-blooded ones,” she said — “four long-legged things, with coat tails down to their knees, and I didn’t like the looks of ‘em. They preached and sang up here on the park, and they boarded with a man who had a houseful of daughters. My goodness! I thought that was funny.”
But there were other things she talked about that were of more personal importance to her. “A year ago I got the malaria from picking strawberries,” said she, “and it laid me flat on my back. I never got better from June to October, and it’s only lately I stopped havin’ stomach chills so’t I could work as I used to. I’d like to see a man work the way I’ve worked; but the men around here won’t take a job unless it jus’ suits ‘em. They rather be idle, and they wouldn’t lift a hand if their wives was to drop dead over the washtub. I go at it before six in the morning. When noon comes I stop to cook a bite to eat for myself and the chillens; but I’m soon to work again, and many times I’ve washed and ironed and had a dollar earned by three o’clock.”
Farther back from the river is the house of Brigham Young, a substantial building of brick. This and all the other brick structures of the Mormon régime never failed to have a touch of quaintness. They showed their age, and many had broken windows and cracked walls, and a few were deserted and hastening to ruin. Some of the old-time brick buildings are gone altogether, and the only reminders of them are remnants of foundations turned up by the plough and hoe in the fields and gardens. The business portion of Nauvoo is now on the hill; but except for a little cluster of stores the place is a rustic village. Great quantities of fruit are raised, especially strawberries and grapes. The latter are very largely made into wine, and there was always wine on my hotel table. Indeed, the landlord declared it was against the rules of the house for any guest to drink water.
The cultivated fields were models of neatness, which may be because the owners are mostly Germans. The Germans are thrifty and are reputed to have plenty of money; but the citizens of a more nervous nationality are wont to affirm that they have no enterprise and do not care whether the town booms or not.
Nauvoo is seriously handicapped by the lack of a railroad. It is true the railroad is within sight on the west bank of the Mississippi, and a steam ferryboat plies back and forth across the broad stream, making five trips a day; but when the river freezes the only substitute is a rowboat shod with runners. This can go after a fashion quite independent of what element is beneath it. If there are spaces of open water or ice too thin to bear the boat’s weight, the crew use oars and poles; but where the ice is thick they get out and haul and push. No matter how bad the conditions, it at least contrives to make one trip daily.
The placidity of the Germans was an irritation to some of their more strenuous neighbors; yet it was quite delightful in its way. One of them with whom I made friends was a fat elderly man whose pudgy features and blue eyes were always twinkling with a smile. He was a picture of care-free happiness and contentment. When I asked him whether he was going to get a task he had started done that day, he said he did not know. “I works till I am tired and then I stops,” he explained.
He had an osage hedge about his vineyard, and its thorny tangle was something of a trouble to trim and keep in order. “But dere is a school near,” said he, “and dot is de best fence dere is for dose poys. Der hedge have so many stickers dey think twice before dey try to get through dot.”
As to the Mormons he said they used to go out into the country around and “steal sheep, pigs, everything; and dey had to do dot dere vas so many to feed. Mine gracious! some of dose men had one hundred and twenty-five childrens.”
Opinions of the character of the old-time Mormons varied. Many wild deeds were done in their day; but not all the ill-doing could be justly laid to them. One early settler who had the air of wanting to be aggressively fair to friend or foe said: “ I remember when they were here very well, and the majority was all right. They were industrious and prosperous, and a happier people didn’t live on top of God’s earth. Naturally, a new town that had grown in five years from nothing to twenty-eight thousand would draw all sorts of folks to it, and would be more or less tough. Lots of fellows come here busted. They’d got to make a livin’ somehow, and they banded together and stole instead of workin’. If one of ‘em got arrested the others would swear the son of a gun was somewhere else all the time it was claimed he was breakin’ the law. So he’d get off.
“I’ve heard said that the Mormons would go a few miles out back here in the night and kill a cow in some man’s pasture and get the carcass in their wagon and let the blood drip along, and that then the other cattle would foller the trail of blood and the Mormons would get the whole herd. I’ve been told, too, that a great many cut-throats and thieves joined the Mormons, and that the church kind o’ protected ‘em when they got into trouble. Well, such things are easier charged than proved. You see there was a good deal of excitement and suspicion about the new religion and the way Joe Smith and the rest was carrying on; so pretty much all the crimes that was committed and some that wa’n’t committed at all was laid to the Saints. I wish the lyin’ hounds who invented those stories could ‘a’ been punished as they deserved.
A Garden Bonfire
“I reckon the farmers would often break the law on the Mormons’ credit. There were men so anxious to get the Mormons into trouble that they would steal and hide things on the Mormons’ premises and then get out a search-warrant to convict ‘em of the crime. Perhaps all that would have blown over if the Saints hadn’t got to quarrellin’ among themselves about this here spiritual wife business. Those who contrived the idea claimed it wa’n’t polygamy, and that the extra wives who was sealed to a man — whatever that meant — was to be his, not in this world, but in the next. Pah! That was their way of pulling the wool over people’s eyes.
“The kickers started a paper here they called the Expositor, and they banded in with all those who wa’n’t Mormons and wrote like the devil against the new religion. ‘Drive the Mormons out of the country,’ was what the Expositor advocated. The Saints got mad, and the city council passed an ordinance against the apostates’ paper, and the city marshal went to the office with a blacksmith, who pounded the press to pieces, and they threw the whole concern out into the street. That was the 7th of June, 1844, and twenty days later Joe Smith and his brother Hyrum was corpses. We had wild times for a while, and the outcome was that the Mormons thought they better skip from this region.
“There was apostates, as I said; but most of the Mormons stuck to their religion through all their troubles and the discussions. They were just like other people — very tenacious of belief. Joe Smith was like other people, too. Most men would like to be pope if they could, and Joe enjoyed the power his scheme brought him. Some think it’s strange he could get so many to accept his religion; but people can be worked up to believe anything. It’s easy to pick flaws in his theology, and it’s easy to pick flaws even in Christianity. Now I tell our good Christians they ought to make a saint of Judas. If he hadn’t brought about the death of Christ none of us could be saved, could we? Ain’t that logic? There’s a good many things in the Bible don’t seem quite right to me. For instance, I haven’t never liked that saying, ‘Unto everyone that hath shall be given.’ If I’d been writing it I’d have said, ‘Him that hath little, give him a little more. Help him along.’ But what’s the use of talkin’? There’s good men in all denominations, and there’s just as good outside of any denomination.”
The turmoil that brought about the migration of the Mormons from Illinois was a curious mixup of persecution, politics, religion, and warfare. The Mormon votes were a valuable asset; for neither of the two leading political parties in the state was strongly ascendant, and concessions were made to the Saints that could not have been obtained otherwise. But at length feeling ran so high and the situation became so threatening that troops were sent to keep the peace. The Mormons had a trained body of militia of their own, known as “The Nauvoo Legion,” and this prepared for resistance. Pickets were posted, and when the state troops approached there was a real battle on a small scale. A man who lived at the time on the town outskirts where the sharpest fighting occurred told me something of his experiences.
“The bullets was flying thick,” he said, “and my father set up a lot of plank along the northeast corner of our house to kind o’ protect it, and he sent me and the rest of the family down cellar. We stayed there three or four hours, except that I crept upstairs once in a while to see what was goin’ on. Both sides had cannon, and when the cannon belonging to the assaulters was shot off, the Mormons would chase the balls and shoot ‘em back. Two Mormons was killed, and the prophet and his brother Hyrum was carried off and put in the county jail at Carthage.
“In a few days it was talked around that the governor intended to set the prisoners free. But the people had got tired of the Mormons’ doin’s and was bound to break ‘em up. So a band of about two hundred men fixed like Indians, with their faces painted red, black, and yellow, went to the jail and called Joseph and Hyrum Smith to the window. Soon as the two brothers looked out dog-gone if the mob didn’t shoot ‘em dead, and the body of the prophet fell out of the window on to the ground.
“Most of the Mormons moved away in the next few months and the last of them skedaddled in 1847. That left a big city of buildings and only a handful of people, and the Mormons got little or nothing for their property. The flat down here was all built over, houses behind houses about as thick as they could stand. A good share of ‘em was of logs and dry to the core, and when a man bought a place down there he’d pick out the best house on it to live in and use pretty near all the rest of the buildings for firewood. So the city disappeared, and it wa’n’t long before some man whose wife had been coaxed off by the Mormons burned the big temple out of revenge. He never was punished for it, and no one knew rightly who done it until he confessed on his death-bed.”
Calking the Boat
Another queer phase of the town’s history began, soon after the Mormons departed, in the form of an attempt to establish a Utopia at Nauvoo. A member of this Utopian community told me its history. “We called ourselves Icarians,” said he, “and the plan was to work one for all and all for one. As the words of our golden rule put it, ‘From each according to his powers; to each according to his needs.’ It was a beautiful idea; but you know the story of Icarus. He made himself wings and fastened them on with wax. They carried him wherever he wished to go, until one time he flew too near the sun and the wax melted. Then down he come, and we done the same thing. Our leader was Etienne Cabet, a great French lawyer, writer, and politician. He was well educated and had most rosy prospects; but he wanted to reform the world and he sacrificed everything for that. He begun with writing a novel called, ‘A Voyage in Icarie,’ describing an ideal nation. The book was a great success, and the people in France were enthusiastic over it — yes, crazy over it — and they wanted to see such an attractive state of things as was pictured in the novel realized.
“So Cabet began organizing, and soon no less than four hundred thousand persons had signed themselves his followers. Then he made the proposal to build up an actual Icaria in America, and the idea swept France like wildfire. Shortly, he had secured land in Texas, and sixty-nine men of his Paris disciples volunteered to go there. They left their families and voyaged to the new country. The land Cabet had bought they supposed was easily accessible; but it proved to be unbroken prairie, which they only reached after a terrible overland march of two hundred and fifty miles. They were loaded down with absurd and useless baggage, not one of them could speak English, and they were artisans or professional men who knew nothing of farming and pioneer life. They stayed through the summer, but eighteen died of malaria and the rest were so disheartened that they started back for France.
“They got as far as the Red River and there met a new lot of recruits, and the whole party went to New Orleans and spent the winter. A committee was sent up the Mississippi to seek a more favorable locality than the one abandoned in Texas. This committee reported enthusiastically on Nauvoo, and in March, 1849, Cabet himself with three hundred men, women, and children came here and established homes. We fixed over old buildings and put up new, and we had gardens and shops of various kinds, and after a while we built a distillery and manufactured whiskey. That was against our principles; but we needed the money. Every one had something to do, and yet no one was to over-exert himself. It was Cabet’s idea to make labor pleasant, and he done it; but he didn’t make us prosperous, and while a great many joined, a great many left, too. The largest number we had in the colony at one time was about six hundred. Some of those who joined had the sense to get out after being with us only a short time, and seeing the scheme was not practical. Often a woman would induce her husband to leave because we had to be very economical, and she’d been used to better things. Then, again, we had everything in common, and a man who was pretty smart and knew he could make money faster’n most of the others, didn’t like to be pinned down to an equal share, and so he’d cut loose.
Making a Willow Whistle
“Cabet thought we should be such a happy family and give the world such a beautiful example of working for each other that every one would flock to join. But he didn’t know human nature; and though the newcomers brought money, and money was sent us by people in France, we was always hard up, and that sort of thing didn’t attract the public to become Icarians. Cabet was a splendid talker, and it was delightful to listen to his Sunday lectures. He was admirable in many ways; still, there began to be a lot of disagreeing and criticising among his followers. He was a lawyer by trade, and he made so many laws an opposition sprung up that at last succeeded in outvoting him and putting in a new man as president. Then Cabet’s partisans refused to work, and the new president refused to feed them, and the colony broke up in a row. That was in 1856. Cabet went down near St. Louis, and in December of that year he was found one morning frozen in his bed.”
Thus both the Mormon and the Icarian colonies had a depressing experience in Nauvoo, and the tragic death of their leaders nearly coincided in each instance with the end of their followers’ occupancy. However, when the Mormons abandoned the place their ranks were not broken, and they started on a long pilgrimage across the wilderness to Utah.
“Yes,” said one of the local dwellers to me, “the Mormons was obliged to skin out from here, and if you want to know how they went you call on Granny Howard. She lives with her son — and he has a loom in the house and weaves rag carpets. She’s over ninety years old; but she does her own work, and in her spare time she sets and sews carpet rags, and she don’t wear any glasses either.”
I found Granny Howard just as described “At the time the Mormons left here,” said she, “we was livin’ in Iowy on a main road leadin’ westward. Some of the Mormons’ wagons was drawn by mules, some by oxen, some by cows, and the poorest people pushed along little carts by hand. They went past thataway for weeks the whole summer through and into col’ weather. My heart ached for ‘em. But they was a jolly set, I tell you. They was jis’ as cheery as if nothin’ hadn’t happened. I went to one of their Sunday meetin’s by the roadside, and oh, sich pretty singin’ I never heard in my life! I remember one ole woman stopped at our house an’ asked my mother if she wa’n’t afraid of ‘em.
“‘Bless your ole soul,’ my mother says, ‘I ain’t done you folks no harm, and I reckon you won’t do me any.’
“‘No,’ the ole woman says, ‘we won’t harm a hair of your head;’ and they didn’t. We never lost so much as a straw.”
The gray-haired son had stopped the clatter of his loom in the next room and now stood in the doorway. “I was in the Civil War,” said he, “and I’ve been all aroun,’ and the Mormons was as nice people as I was ever among. That there temple they had here was a fine thing, and I believe, by golly, they’ll come back to Nauvoo some day.”
He, like many others of the citizens, was an admirer of the local attractions of the town — its fertile lands and its overlook on the long loop of the river; and they are all quite certain no spot in the whole valley is so beautiful or better suited for the site of a great city. They are sorry the Mormons were driven out; for when they left, the place was larger than Chicago, and there was every prospect of its growing to be one of the biggest and most important towns in the nation.
As to the Mormons, they suffered much, and their prophet came to a melancholy end which at the time seemed a culminating disaster; and yet his death and the other Mormon fatalities proved to be a fortunate thing for the system he founded. The church now had its martyrs, and a halo of glory enshrined their memories. The methods of their assailants had been unreasonable and lawless. Nevertheless, the underlying cause of the persecution had a certain justice in it. The Mormon population was an unmanageable factor in political affairs. The vote was sure to be a unit, and the centralized power of the organization was a dangerous element in the state. Seemingly the mob struck at the Mormon’s liberty of conscience, but really the chief thing hated and feared was his lack of liberty of action.
The effect of the persecution, however, was to make the Mormons tenfold more Mormon than before. It only added to their fanatical enthusiasm. A man will think twice about inconveniencing himself for his religion, he will hesitate to make himself poor for it; but show him that another man stands ready to slay him for adhering to it, and he is instantly prepared to do battle, not so much for the religion as for his right to believe in it if he chooses.
NOTE. — Nauvoo has the charm of an historic and exciting past. It has a beautiful and impressive situation, much survives to remind one of the Mormon days, and few places in America are more moving to the imagination. It is a little off the beaten path of travel, but that is only a matter of being across the river from the railroad, which helps to keep it unchanged and preserves the charm. The tourist who fails to see it misses much.